The Green Column #38

Green Marketing: Smart Consumers

November 30, 2010—Consumption of human-made products and the globalized trading of such goods and services have historically been the key drivers of our economic system. Now it is becoming clear that the major challenge of the 21st century is, “How will the major economies of the world sustain adequate jobs, compensation, accommodated lifestyles, and essential maintenance and operation of our cities and communities, while also protecting the environment for the choices and enjoyment of future generations in a world of limited and diminishing natural resources?”

As more and more citizens become genuinely concerned about the answer to this question, they become “green” consumers. That is, they become consumers who are worried about more than just the purchase and consumption of products. They are also exhibiting concerns about the resources consumed in the production, product distribution and product disposal processes.

Consumers’ increased interest in these issues has encouraged businesses to enter the “green” market. Businesses attempt to connect with “green” consumers by selling products or services that strive to protect the environment through energy and/or resource conservation and reducing or eliminating the use of toxic agents, pollution or waste. Profitable efforts can also include sustainable business operations such as recycling, use of wind power, or other practices intended to minimize the environmental impact of their actions; employees educated with the organization’s sustainable strategy, fair labor practices, and transparency in communications and advertising.

The increased use of “green” marketing to capture consumers’ attention and move Americans toward a more environmentally-friendly future has created a great deal of confusion due to no standards, lack of expertise, variety of labeling standards and “greenwashing”.

“What companies think green claims mean and what consumers really understand are sometimes two different things,” said Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairman Jon Leibowitz.

According to a survey of six category-leading big box stores by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, “Of the 1,018 products reviewed, all but one committed at least one of the Six Sins of Greenwashing.” Greenwashing, according to TerraChoice, is false or misleading green marketing claims

TerraChoice Environmental Marketing’s Six Sins of Greenwashing

Hidden Trade-Off Basing a product’s “greenness” on one environmental attribute without attention to other important environmental issues. For example, household insulation products that claim indoor air quality benefits without attention to other environmental issues such as recycled content and manufacturing impacts.

No Proof Any environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information, or by a third-party certification. For example, household lights that advertise energy efficiency without supporting evidence or certification.

Vagueness Claims that are poorly defined or too broad, causing the real meaning to be misunderstood by the consumer. For example, the claim all natural. Arsenic, uranium, mercury and formaldehyde are all natural and all are poisonous.

Irrelevance An environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant and unhelpful for consumers looking for environmentally friendly products. The most used example is the chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) claim, CFC-free. Since CFCs have been banned for nearly thirty years, no products use it in manufacturing anymore.

Fibbing Making environmental claims that are false. For example, a caulking product that claims to be Energy Star-rated but the official Energy Star website suggests this is false.

Lesser of Two Evils When environmental qualifiers such as “organic” or “green” are placed on products in which the entire product category is of questionable environmental value, for example, organic cigarettes.


Look for and ask for eco-labels These labels are one of the most useful tools available to consumers. According to TerraChoice, independent third party labels like EcoLogo and Green Seal develop standards for environmental leadership in an open, transparent consensus-base process that considers multiple environmental issues throughout a product’s lifecycle.

Look for further information Transparent green marketing will help consumers explore claims and find more information through company websites, third-party certifiers and toll-free numbers.

Evaluate environmental claims in advertising and on product labels Consumers should look for specific information. Determine whether the claims apply to the product, the packaging, or both. Is the claim important and relevant to the product?


There are an increasing number of resources available to assist consumers in deciphering green advertising and marketing. Here are just a few.

EcoLogo The EcoLogo website includes over 120 environmental standards and almost 7,000 certified products.

Green Seal An independent nonprofit with over 20 years’ experience in certifying products and services that are greener and healthier.

Greenerchoices Launched by the Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports, was created to inform, engage, and empower consumers about environmentally-friendly products and practices, includes buying guides, tools and an eco-labels center.

The Green Guides The FTC publishes a series of marketing guidelines called the Green Guides created to protect consumers and help businesses better align their product claims with consumer expectations.

The ultimate goal: Consume less of our non-renewable resources

As consumers begin to demand more information about the products they purchase, organizations and marketers presenting full disclosure have the opportunity to help make consumers agents for change, “small, gradual changes that, when multiplied by millions,” according to author Daniel Goleman, “will ripple through the industrial enterprise, from manufacturing and design, through supply chains and transport, to the distant ends of consumption.”

And, according to Christopher Flavin, President of the Worldwatch Institute, “In the long run, it will become apparent that achieving generally accepted goals—meeting basic human needs, improving human health, and supporting a natural world that can sustain us—will require that we control consumption rather than allow consumption to control us.”

© Lincoln Green by Design